Saturday, August 22, 2015

Intern Update: American Society for Meliorating the Condition of the Jews

By intern Ryan Bachman.

Receipt for donation of $58.50 given by the Auxiliary Society of Cornwall to the American Society in New York, 1825.
(Collection of Cornwall Historical Society)

 During the first two decades of the nineteenth century, Cornwall was one of the centers of the American Mission Movement due to the presence of the Foreign Mission School. At the same time, a small piece of paper from the historical society vault reveals that the community was also involved in another, lesser known, international missionary endeavor. The American Society for Meliorating the Condition of the Jews was founded in New York in 1820. In theory, the goals of the Society were noble: to provide funding for European Jews to relocate to the Hudson River Valley, and theoretically escape anti-Semitism found in their home countries. Unfortunately, the conditions for removal dictated that potential candidates renounce their faith and culture and convert to Protestant Christianity.

The main office in New York City was supported by auxiliary organizations all over the country. By 1825, an auxiliary society was set up in Cornwall and began to collect money for emigration efforts. The treasurer of the Cornwall auxiliary society was John Hart Pierce, who sent $58.50 to New York City in April 1825. The Cornwall society’s donation was exceptionally large, and may have been related to the enthusiasm for missionary activity generated by the Foreign Mission School. In fact, at the time of Pierce’s donation, a student was attending the school who specifically represented the goals of the American Society. Judah Isaac Abrahams arrived at the Foreign Mission School in 1822, and converted from Judaism to Congregationalism the following year. However, the experience of Abrahams was not typical, and the American Society for Meliorating the Condition of the Jews remained a controversial, and largely unsuccessful, organization throughout the duration of its existence.

Ultimately, the lives of both Pierce and Abrahams ended in tragedy. Only months after sending Cornwall’s donation to New York, Pierce was killed when a cart suddenly shifted and pinned him against a fence post. Abrahams went on to graduate from not only the Foreign Mission School, but also Andover Theological Seminary. In 1830, Abrahams actually went to work for the American Society for Meliorating the Condition of the Jews. Two years later, he departed on a mission trip to Morocco and went missing shortly after landing in North Africa. As for the American Society, it survived for another several decades, before finally dissolving in 1870.

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